Archive for August 2015
In the course of commenting over on the Corner to a list of the ‘ten best revolutionaries’ (yes, the list was as dumb as you can expect), I included an extract from Paul Berman’s excellent Slate response to The Motorcycle Diaries, a hagiographic Che movie made about ten years ago.
Some of Berman’s piece was an attempt to insert a little accuracy into the historical record, but this too caught my eye:
[T]he entire movie, in its concept and tone, exudes a Christological cult of martyrdom, a cult of adoration for the spiritually superior person who is veering toward death—precisely the kind of adoration that Latin America’s Catholic Church promoted for several centuries, with miserable consequences. The rebellion against reactionary Catholicism in this movie is itself an expression of reactionary Catholicism. The traditional churches of Latin America are full of statues of gruesome bleeding saints. And the masochistic allure of those statues is precisely what you see in the movie’s many depictions of young Che coughing out his lungs from asthma and testing himself by swimming in cold water—all of which is rendered beautiful and alluring by a sensual backdrop of grays and browns and greens, and the lovely gaunt cheeks of one actor after another, and the violent Andean landscapes.
The cult of suffering—the idea that suffering is itself somehow ennobling—has long been a feature of some of the more morbid outgrowths of Christian tradition, and it can easily be detected in some of the opposition to assisted suicide.
In the course of an article for the Boston Pilot,a nun, Sister Constance Veit, wrote:
Compassion, or “suffering with” another, manifests what is best in us as members of the human family. As Little Sisters of the Poor we often witness the extraordinary things that happen at the bedside of our dying residents — striking acts of faith, graces of personal conversion and family reconciliation and exceptional gestures of empathy on the part of our staff members.
This past winter we were hit with a particularly tough strain of the flu. Several residents succumbed to the illness, including a woman who had been caught in the downward spiral of Alzheimer’s disease for over 15 years. In his funeral homily the priest, a family friend, suggested that as Alzheimer’s progressively robbed her of all that she had enjoyed in life, he had been tempted to wonder, “Why is she still here?”
The priest had a ready response to his own question, though: despite her silence and complete dependence this woman remained among us for so long to bring out the best in her caregivers, to teach us how to love. Father’s answer echoed an insight that St. John Paul II had shared 30 years ago in his apostolic letter on human suffering:
“We could say that suffering, which is present under so many different forms in our human world, is also present in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one’s ‘I’ on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer. The world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love; and in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love which stirs in his heart and actions.”
What a mystery — these suffering souls whose mission it is to call the rest of us to a more noble existence, a more loving and generous gift of self! The graces bestowed on those who care for the ill and dying parallel those received by the sick who recognize God as the Master of Life and entrust themselves to him. One of the reasons why assisted suicide is so tragic is that it would deprive the sick and those who accompany them of these important graces.
That last paragraph is, I have to say, disgusting. Sister Veit’s argument that those wrestling with the later stages of a cruel disease are on a “mission” on behalf of the rest of us, a mission that they had never asked to be on, is an expression of fanaticism, terrifying in its absence of empathy for her fellow man.
We are often to told that assisted suicide could represent a slippery slope to moral catastrophe. To read Veit’s words—and to understand what, in practice, they really mean— is to realize that we are already there.
Niloy Chakrabarti was only the latest atheist blogger to be hacked to death in the country this year.
That refers to the murder of Chakrabarti, slaughtered by a group of attackers in his appartment earlier this month.
A long piece in today’s Guardian explains what’s been going on.
Here’s an extract:
[Avijit] Roy, who held dual US and Bangladeshi nationality, was the most prominent atheist writer to be attacked in Bangladesh, but he was not the first – or the last. On 30 March, a month after Roy’s murder, another blogger, Washiqur Rahman Babu, was set upon by a group of masked assailants. On 12 May, Ananta Bijoy Das, who wrote for Mukto-Mona on rationalism and science, was attacked in his hometown of Sylhet. On 7 August, men with machetes broke into the Dhaka home of Niloy Chakrabarti, a blogger who used the pen name Niloy Neel. All three men died.
The four murders in 2015 were brutal and happened in quick succession, prompting police action. Three people have been arrested – including a British citizen, Touhidur Rahman – over the deaths of Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das.
A British citizen: I’ll just interrupt to note that fact.
But the violence goes back further. It began on 15 January 2013, when atheist blogger and political activist Asif Mohiuddin was on his way to work and was attacked from behind by a group of men with machetes. “I [thought] I would die,” he tells me over Skype from his new home in Germany. “But somehow I survived.” He spent weeks in intensive care, and still finds it difficult to move his neck. “I think I will carry this problem all my life.”
A month later, another blogger critical of Islamic fundamentalism, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was attacked in the same way outside his house in Dhaka. He did not survive. In August 2014, someone broke into the Dhaka home of TV personality Nurul Islam Faruqi, who had criticised fundamentalist groups on air, and slit his throat. A humanist academic, Professor Shafiul Islam, who had pushed for a ban on full-face veils for students, was murdered near Rajshahi University in west Bangladesh in November.
These brutal crimes have gone unpunished; arrests have not led to prosecutions. The government appears unwilling, or unable, to stand with atheists. Instead, in an attempt to appease Islamists, it has ramped up its own actions against “blasphemous” bloggers….
Read the whole thing.
Comments off · Posted by Andrew Stuttaford in politics
Will Pope Francis use the privileged platform—an address to Congress—that he has been given (why?) by Speaker Boehner next month to say something about immigration?
Many advocates for revamping immigration laws have tried to coax Congress into action over the years, but a particularly powerful one will be arriving next month: Pope Francis. Lawmakers and immigration activists expect the pontiff’s message will resonate beyond Capitol Hill and inspire members of Congress and their constituents. The pope’s U.S. schedule includes an address to Congress on Sept. 24 and a meeting two days later with immigrants and Hispanic families at Philadelphia’s Independence Mall.
“He’s been clear on our failure to respond appropriately to immigrants and refugees,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., told CQ. “I don’t think anyone will have any doubt on where the church stands on immigration after the pope visits the United States.”
…The Holy Father would enter the United States by crossing the Mexican border if he had the time, according to Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, the head of a papal advisory group of cardinals, during remarks in March before a Georgetown University audience.
McGovern, one of 169 Catholics in Congress, noted many Catholics might not be familiar with the church’s catechism that “more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood, which he cannot find in his country of origin.” He said he hopes the pope’s words will affect his colleagues who are opposed to a comprehensive immigration overhaul and encourage them to reflect on their actions.
“It may move some, it may not move others,” McGovern told CQ. “But I hope it makes those who have been obstructionist feel uncomfortable.”
Quite why they should feel “uncomfortable” escapes me. The duty of these elected officials is to their constituents and to the best interests of their country. I doubt if those will be the grounds of any appeal that Francis may choose to make.
We’ll have to wait and see what he comes up with, of course, but, judging by Francis’s track record, most notoriously a homily he gave on the Italian island of Lampedusa not long after becoming Pope, he will indeed have quite a bit to say on the topic, little of it sensible.
As I’ve noted before, the Pope’s words on that occasion were analyzed by “Theodore Dalrymple” (Anthony Daniels) for Law and Liberty in a powerfully-argued piece that will, I suspect, turn out to have little in common with the hagiographic mush that is likely to characterize most mainstream media coverage of the upcoming papal visit. It is, therefore, well worth re-reading now, not least as some sort of inoculation.
Here’s an extract:
In his homily, the Pope decried what he called ‘the globalization of indifference’ to the suffering of which the tragedy of the drowned [migrants] was a manifestation and a consequence. Our culture of comfort, he said, has made us indifferent to the sufferings of others; we have forgotten how to cry on their behalf. He made reference to the play of Lope de Vega in which a tyrant is killed by the inhabitants of a town called Fuente Ovejuna, no one owning up to the killing and everyone saying that it was Fuente Ovejuna that killed him. The West, said the Pope, was like Fuente Ovejuna, for when asked who was to blame for the deaths of these migrants, it answered, ‘Everyone and no one!’ He continued, ‘Today also this question emerges: who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters? No one! We each reply: it was not I, I wasn’t here, it was someone else.’
The Pope also called for ‘those who take the socio-economic decisions in anonymity that open the way to tragedies such as these to come out of hiding.’ With all due respect, I think this is very loose thinking indeed of a kind that the last Pope would not have permitted himself. The analogy between the two situations, the murder of the tyrant in Fuente Ovejuna and the death by drowning of thousands of migrants, is weak to the point of non-existence. After all, someone in Fuente Ovejuna did kill the tyrant; no one in the west drowned the migrants. Is the Pope then saying that Europe’s refusal to allow in all who want to come is the moral equivalent of actually wielding the knife?
By elevating feeling over thought, by making compassion the measure of all things, the Pope was able to evade the complexities of the situation, in effect indulging in one of the characteristic vices of our time, moral exhibitionism, which is the espousal of generous sentiment without the pain of having to think of the costs to other people of the implied (but unstated) morally-appropriate policy…..
And Dalrymple did not overlook the Pope’s descent into the intellectual squalor of conspiracism, territory, I would add, that Francis has since chosen to revisit on other occasions:
The Pope’s use of a term such as ‘those who take the socio-economic decisions in anonymity’ was strong on connotation but weak on denotation, itself a sign of intellectual evasion. Who, exactly, were ‘those’ people? Wall Street hedge fund managers, the International Monetary Fund, opponents of free trade, African dictators? Was he saying that the whole world economic system was to blame for the migration across the Mediterranean, that the existence of borders was illegitimate, that Denmark (for example) was rich because Swaziland was poor, that if only Losotho were brought up to the level of Liechtenstein (or, of course, if Liechtenstein were brought down to the level of Lesotho) no one would drown in the Mediterranean? There was something for everyone’s conspiracy theory in his words…
Well, no good demagogue is ever more than a sentence of two away from a conspiracy theory.
The Economist is a magazine (or ‘newspaper’ as it likes to style itself) that has badly lost its way, abandoning the quirky classical liberalism of a three or four decades ago for a bien pensant Davos liberalism that is as condescending as it is misguided.
On occasion though, hints of the old Economist can emerge, as a recent piece in support of doctor-assisted suicide demonstrates.
Here’s an extract:
The idea fills its critics with dismay. For some, the argument is moral and absolute. Deliberately ending a human life is wrong, because life is sacred and the endurance of suffering confers its own dignity. For others, the legalisation of doctor-assisted dying is the first step on a slippery slope where the vulnerable are threatened and where premature death becomes a cheap alternative to palliative care.
It is worth interrupting to add that the argument of a slippery slope will have little resonance with someone, suffering say from locked-in syndrome, who may well believe that he has already slid down the slope and into the ditch to which the likes of Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley (a prominent opponent of Massachusetts’ sadly unsuccessful 2012 right-to-die initiative) would so prayerfully consign him.
Back to The Economist:
These views are deeply held and deserve to be taken seriously. But liberty and autonomy are sources of human dignity, too. Both add to the value of a life. In a secular society, it is odd to buttress the sanctity of life in the abstract by subjecting a lot of particular lives to unbearable pain, misery and suffering. And evidence from places that have allowed assisted dying suggests that there is no slippery slope towards widespread euthanasia. In fact, the evidence leads to the conclusion that most of the schemes for assisted dying should be bolder.
The popular desire for assisted dying is beyond question. The Economist asked Ipsos MORI to survey people in 15 countries on whether doctors should be allowed to help patients to die, and if so, how and when. Russia and Poland are against, but we find strong support across America and western Europe for allowing doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients with terminal diseases. In 11 out of the 15 countries we surveyed, most people favoured extending doctor-assisted dying to patients who are in great physical suffering but not close to death.
No wonder that, just as adultery existed in Spain before 1978, so too many doctors help their patients die even if the law bans them from doing so. Usually this is by withdrawing treatment or administering pain-relief in lethal doses. Often doctors act after talking to patients and their relatives. Occasionally, when doctors overstep the mark, they are investigated, though rarely charged. Some people welcome this fudge because it establishes limits to doctor-assisted dying without the need to articulate the difficult moral choices this involves.
But this approach is unethical and unworkable. It is unethical because an explicit choice that should lie with the patient is wholly in the hands of a doctor. It is hypocritical because society is pretending to shun doctor-assisted dying while tacitly condoning it without safeguards. What may turn out to be more important, this system is also becoming impractical. Most deaths now take place in hospital, under teams of doctors who are working with closer legal and professional oversight. Death by nods and winks is no good.
Better is to face the arguments. One fear is that assisted dying will be foisted on vulnerable patients, bullied by rogue doctors, grasping relatives, miserly insurers or a cash-strapped state. Experience in Oregon, which has had a law since 1997, suggests otherwise. Those who choose assisted suicide are in fact well-educated, insured and receiving palliative care. They are motivated by pain, as well as the desire to preserve their own dignity, autonomy and pleasure in life.
Another fear is that assisted dying will downgrade care. But Belgium and Holland have some of the best palliative care in Europe. Surveys show that doctors are as trusted in countries with assisted dying as they are in those without. And there are scant signs of a slippery slope. In Oregon only 1,327 people have received lethal medicine—and just two-thirds of those have used it to take their lives. Assisted dying now accounts for about 3% of deaths in the Netherlands—a large number—but this is less a rush to assisted dying than the coming to light of an unspoken tradition in which doctors quietly brought their patients’ lives to an end.
How, then, should assisted dying work? For many the model is Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. It allows (but does not oblige) doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients with less than six months to live who ask for them, if a second doctor agrees. There is a cooling-off period of 15 days.
We would go further. Oregon insists that the lethal dose is self-administered, to avoid voluntary euthanasia. To the patient the moral distinction between taking a pill and asking for an injection is slight. But the practical consequence of this stricture is to prevent those who are incapacitated from being granted help to die. Not surprisingly, some of the fiercest campaigners for doctor-assisted dying suffer from ailments such as motor neurone disease, which causes progressive paralysis. They want to know that when they are incapacitated, they will be granted help to die, if that is their wish. Allowing doctors to administer the drugs would ensure this.
Oregon’s law covers only conditions that are terminal. Again, that is too rigid. The criterion for assisting dying should be a patient’s assessment of his suffering, not the nature of his illness. Some activists for the rights of the disabled regard the idea that death could be better than a chronic condition as tantamount to declaring disabled people to be of lesser worth. We regard it as an expression of their autonomy. So do many disabled people. Stephen Hawking has described keeping someone alive against his wishes as the “ultimate indignity”.
Indeed it is.
But it is an indignity that men like Sean O’Malley, prelates who have been so busy of late proclaiming the primacy of ‘religious liberty’, are prepared to insist on. Liberty, it seems, is not for all.
Uki Goñi has written an article for the New York Times on Pope Francis’s Peronist roots.Here’s an extract:
Less known is that Perón took his cue from the politicized Catholic leaders of ’30s Argentina. Church leaders back then sought the integration of Argentina’s new working class by promoting radical labor reforms. Bishops addressed some of the country’s first large rallies of workers, and Perón cut his teeth speaking at meetings of the Círculos Católicos de Obreros (Catholic Worker Circles).
Perón’s alliance with the bishops was sealed when the 1943-46 military regime, in which he was vice president, made Catholic education obligatory in Argentina’s previously secular public schools. The process culminated in 1944 when Perón decorated a statue of the Virgin Mary with a military sash and appointed her a “general,” accompanied by a 21-gun salute.
Now that’s a nice touch, but, to be fair, it’s worth noting that Perón turned sharply against the church in the later part of his first stretch in power.
Back to Goñi:
“Neither Marxists nor Capitalists. Peronists!” was the chant of Perón’s supporters. And it was borrowing from the church’s political thinking that enabled Perón to found his “Third Way.”
It’s perhaps a little more complicated than that. Perón made a careful study of the politics of inter-war Europe (he was based there for a while) and essentially concluded that Argentina could learn most from the corporatism of fascist Italy, a corporatism that was itself partly a mutation of some of the political and economic ideas set out in De Rerum Novarum, a hugely influential late-19th-century encyclical.
And Perón was not the first to believe that he had found a “third way” between socialism and capitalism, a notion that was the conceit of a number of Roman Catholic intellectuals in the early 20th century, not least G. K. Chesterton, a rather better writer than economist (interestingly, shortly before he became pope, the then Cardinal Bergoglio approved the wording of a private prayer calling for Chesterton’s canonization).
Francis has also borrowed quite a bit of Peronist style too. Reading an article in CapX by Federico N. Fernández about the upcoming Argentine election, this passage made me think of the way Francis has of scattering villains, straw men and hints of conspiracy in some of his more overtly political speeches:
The [Peronist] Kirchner couple has had three consecutive terms in office since 2003. In these twelve years they have isolated Argentina from the rest of the world and their hate mongering tactics have fractured and polarized society.
Following the intellectual guidance of Ernesto Laclau (1935–2014), the Kirchners have run their administration on the basis of constant conflict and the “friend / foe” logic…The Kirchners divided society between “the people” and different enemies – a kind of satanic anti-people who is constantly plotting to undermine the achievements of the “popular government.”
In describing Peronist rule, Goñi writes that “the populist general upended Argentina’s class structure by championing the country’s downtrodden”. There’s quite a bit to that (although Perón’s policies should also be read as an expression of Argentine caudillismo), but what he does not say is that Peronism ended in economic disaster, a fact that has not stopped Pope Francis from peddling a very similar brand of snake oil for reasons, I suspect, that do not do him credit.
That’s the title of John McWhorter’s excellent piece at The Daily Beast. He looks at the rhetoric of the Blacks Lives Matter movement and its acolytes and finds all the trappings of a new and only nominally secular religion. It’s essentially liturgy, as he explained in a recent Bloggingheads convo.
Fans of writer Sarah Perry and her musings on the sacralization of politics will see similar themes at work in McWhorter’s article.